Field Guide to Falling in Love in Tasmania

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  • Heritage and Ruins

    Heritage and Ruins

    Earlier this month, folk musicians John Flanagan and Daniel Townsend came to Launceston to listen to local stories and convert them into song. On a sunny Saturday afternoon, I listened to them perform, and was most delighted to hear their ditty in praise of these small cottages, long abandoned to weeds and graffiti on the North Esk River.

    Wedged between Launceston’s Centrelink offices and the newly-reopened strip club, the Boland Street cottages were built in 1876 to the designs of prominent local architect Peter Mills. Twice during the 1990s they were gutted by fires, and so have sat for nearly two decades in a quiet state of disuse.

    Yet ‘Centrelink Cottage’ (as the musicians called it) has been the centre of plenty of debate, even as it remains unused. Like the former C.H. Smith building on the intersection of Charles and Canal streets, the Boland Street cottages are heritage-listed, and therefore potential developers of these sites have been subject to great obstacles.

    Tasmania has a very proactive Heritage Council, and with good reason: the island’s colonial architecture is preserved better than anywhere else in Australia, with a number of sites declared to be of high value when it comes to expressing vernacular styles and the community’s sense of place.

    Both the cottages and the C.H. Smith buildings represent an important part of Launceston’s waterfront industrial tapestry. But as was argued by Michael Newton, who battled for two decades to have the Boland Street cottages released from heritage listing, “How do you maintain a burnt-out and derelict property?”

    Ruined buildings like these are consistently dismissed as ‘eyesore’. But others argue that such sites have an alternative value. As British nature writer Roger Deakin wrote in his journals, “
    We need more ruins...more evidence of a past, a living past. Ruins have a special life of their own.”

    The Boland Street cottages have been sold and a significant development is mooted for the site; work is being undertaken to allow the C.H. Smith to house 20 retailers and a carpark.

    Cities carry the past and they obliterate it,” writes literary critic Gillian Beer. Urban landmarks are always under more pressure to change, to be adapted. Our commercial tastes dictate this. If you were to read this town’s architectural history, you would be able to interpret what has been driving us. Today, our built spaces are being converted to whisky bars, tourism ventures, tattoo parlours – but each of these, in time, will be out of fashion and replaced by other interests, all of which will be explainable through the myriad economic and social forces around us and within us.

    There are countless changes that have occurred in my two decades living in this town. Walk around Launceston and look up: you’ll find more, from the last two centuries. “Cities here are communicative: present and past coexist in a conversation that composes layers and striations of reference.”

    As a budding adolescent photographer, oblivious to the existence of the romantic aesthetic but drawn to it nevertheless, I entered the ruins mentioned above. My eye was attracted to the exposed skeleton of the cottages and the wiry branches of buddleja; inside the C.H. Smith building, I found a shelter that seemed to have belonged to some homeless people, with cushions and stuffed toys. “The bosses here are fascists,” a note from some unknown time read. The images I took (and photoshopped to death) are of places that will belong only to the long distant past soon enough.

  • Fatty Appleton's Town

    Fatty Appleton's Town

    On the other side of the world, in a city founded more than two millennia ago, I turn to my usual news sources and read about Hobart.

    Of course, Hobart’s winter solstice festival, Dark Mofo, has been and gone with its feasts, concerts and presentations, as well as a skinny-dip in the cold water of the Derwent estuary. It has, according to one reporter, lived up to the hype.

    This festival, co-ordinated by those behind the Museum of Old and New Art, are creating new traditions. And it is interesting to watch traditions being born.

    That Hobart has hype is also a new thing. For a long time, Hobart and the island of which it is the capital city have been somewhat maligned by the rest of the country. A small population, poor education outcomes, a struggling economy and a relatively cold climate made Tasmania a butt of jokes, with the most common of them describing Tasmanians as socially isolated, backwards, and inbred.

    Not to mention a lingering stigma about the city’s sordid past. The second-oldest city in Australia was founded as a penal colony, and for the first part of the 1800s, that was its primary purpose. This, of course, also dispossessed the original Tasmanians, who had lived throughout the island for more than 40,000 years.

    This was the town to which the refuse of the British Empire was sent, or to which the riff-raff fled trying to escape their pasts. Where men were hung up on triangles on the street corners and flogged, where prostitutes and drunks roamed. Pedlars stood at Poor Man’s Corner on Elizabeth Street, such as Coffee Tom selling matchticks, and Nobby Dixon offering cigars, and Patsy Maher selling fruit from his donkey cart.

    It was the town of Fatty Appleton, a wharfie and a brawler, photographed by an unknown fin-du-siècle photographer with his meaty arms slung over a couple of barrels that look awfully similar to the subject himself. There is a cheeky glint in his eyes, deeply set into a nasty face.

    But then, the curious art collector David Walsh, who made his wealth from gambling, built an art gallery. Coinciding with a rising interest in eco-tourism and boutique food and drink, suddenly Tasmania was on the map. Lonely Planet put Hobart in the Top 10 Cities to visit. It was all becoming rather sexy. There was hype.

    And Hobart is living up to it, apparently.

    From afar, I remember my days and nights in Hobart happily. Swigging ale from the bottle as I run down to the Shipwrights Arms to watch the footy, or cradling a lager waiting for a local poet to meet me at the Hope and Anchor (he didn’t show up). Drinking herbal tea with breakfast in Moonah, while Ramos looks up at the mountain, picturing the wall of rock he will climb that day. Rifling through the selection of cheap buys outside Kookaburra Books. 

    Herodotus, the ancient historian, mentioned in the preface to his Histories that he should account for both cities small and great, ‘for those which in old times were great have for the most part become small, while those that were in my own time great used in former times to be small’.

    And indeed, in my own short lifetime I have seen the fate and reputation of cities like Hobart change.

    But it’s still Fatty Appleton’s town to me. Fatty Appletown.

    ‘Human prosperity never continues steadfast,’ Herodotus continues. The hype will disappear, but who knows: there may still be mid-winter swims for decades to come. And there is definitely still a Fatty or two lurking around the streets late at night.

     

    Another great Hobart character was the first chaplain, Bobby Knopwood.
    Last week, we recounted the history of sailor James Kelly.